With a return to play looming, Curtin discusses the state of the Union
June 10, 2020
WHEN WE LAST SAW the Philadelphia Union play, it was in an epic 3-3 draw in California against a Los Angeles FC team that is expected to compete for the title this year. Jim Curtin’s team, consisting of a healthy blend of young domestic players and veterans, finally looked to be among the best in the league.
But then the global pandemic hit and MLS, along with leagues throughout the globe, were forced to shut down. After much speculation, MLS announced its return to play in July. It will begin with a tournament in Orlando that will also count towards regular season in the group stages. Then there will be a knockout round as teams compete for a tournament win that will ensure a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League in 2021. Following that, the plan is to return to home markets.
ASN caught up with Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin for an exclusive interview on a number of topics.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: How have you handled the shutdown and the gradual return to training? How do you feel about your team right now and its ability to compete?
JIM CURTIN: If you go back and look at the past 70 plus days, it's been a unique experience for everyone when it relates to the virus - political and social issues aside, it's been unique. Initially we had to connect with our players on a human level and make sure everyone is accounted for. Then we progressed to individual fitness plans. We had two weeks of individual workouts. Then seeing them start to work together and pass the ball to each other, there has been a progression.
There have been unique parts - we've been using Zoom video to analyze things and talk about team dynamics. They've all been pretty useful and valuable. We've taken things that we've struggled with last year, like breaking down the low-block, and had sessions on them. We found ways to improve, even while we were away. Most important right now is connecting with players on a human level to make sure they're prepared and ready to go as we get ready for the competition in Orlando.
ASN: There were a lot of hurdles to get to this point and one was the new collective bargaining agreement. How relieved were you with that? And what are you expecting in terms of the quality of the remainder of the season?
CURTIN: You understand how hard it is for sides to come together. As the deadline approached, both sides needed to work hard to find a solution. Ultimately, MLS and the players union did that. As a coach I was excited to see that. It'll never be normal. Soccer and our league will never be normal again after what we went through with the pandemic, but to have smiles on everyone's faces getting back and to have that interaction not a zoom call, and to have that comradery, has been a real positive step forward. Now there is that light at the end of the tunnel with games in our future.
The soccer isn't going to be as sharp. That's just natural. I think every team in the league will experience that. But the one thing our players could control is how fit they were. To our players credit, we gave them a test a week ago and they were further along with their scores in the fitness test - we give it in January and last week and, to a man, they were all further along.
As a coach, you're always worried: culturally, did we do enough? Did they hold each other accountable in the time they were away? But everyone here made improvements. For some, the improvements were really significant.
ASN: You've been affiliated with the league for a long time in several capacities. When you say the league will not be the same, what do you mean? Obviously, there won't be spectators for the foreseeable future. But is there anything else?
CURTIN: Everybody, first and foremost, misses the game. When I say it won't be the same, everyone keeps using the word normal. When are we going to return to normal? I think normal is still quite a way off, and that's okay. Everyone's health and safety comes first.
Even with the Bundesliga returning - without the passion of the fans, it's a different game. Now you can hear the dialog and the banter between the players, and that's a cool new thing and that might be a positive.
Another new positive might be our ability to communicate via a platform like Zoom where the simplicity of it and being able to break down film. Maybe there is something about Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie that is keeping me up at night, I can just jump on a call and start breaking down a video right there and walk them through it at 9pm at night. It's so much more accessible right now. There is so much improved communication not just with teams, but with front offices. I think we've adapted and adjusted. Humans are adaptable creatures so I don't want to paint a bad picture on it.
When I say it won't be the same, it can't be the same. The phases we are going through and the protocols the players are going through are so strict and guarded - and they have to be. We're following all those and the process has been a gradual one. The league, I think, got it right in the approach. It finally feels like we are getting close to the games, and that's what everyone wants. Players want to play, coaches want to coach, sponsors and television wants it as well. There were a lot of factors that had to come together but it's still not going to look like the game we had vs. LAFC. That was just incredibly special. Fans are just a big part of the game and they bring so much passion... it's still the game we love but it has changed a little bit, and I think that change is probably forever. We're all going to be a little more cautious about interaction in the stadium, in the locker room, and keeping a clean environment. It's going to be different.
ASN: As a manager, how much are you thinking your plans will change in the restart? In what areas will you have to adjust? Will it be things like using more players than you planned or changing an approach given the new substitution plans?
CURTIN: For sure. There is going to be a World-Cup style format to kick it all off and bring interest back into our league. I think that is a smart move. In those competitions, the margins are tighter. Every game and every point is going to matter. How you navigate that with things like squad rotations and additional subs, I think we will have bigger rosters and bigger benches like you've seen adopted by FIFA. Depth will really come up and how you use your roster spots and how I've prepared groups during this downtime will really show once the games start. You're seeing it in the Bundesliga. Teams that took the right approach and have the right mentality with these games - like there are fans in the stands and like they really matter - those are the teams that are winning. You're seeing one-sided score lines too. Teams that are prepared well are separating from those that maybe don't have that mental toughness....It's the definition of a professional to be prepared to play for anything - home, away, neutral field, closed doors.
ASN: How do you attach prestige and meaning to a tournament like this for players? Is a CONCACAF Champions League spot enough to treat it beyond what a preseason tournament would feel like?
CURTIN: There is no question that 2020 for sports - on the field and off the field and in the world politically - is going to have a lot of asterixis next to it. It's a unique year and a challenging one for a lot of reasons. There are far more important things going in in the world right now. With the players, it's a situation where you have to communicate with them. It's easy to complain when something is new and different. It's the easiest thing to do - to point out the flaws and the problems with it. But in anything, sports or business, the people who find solutions and have leaders who can point to positives in these situations, are the ones that find success.
Our goal for the Philadelphia Union is to go to Orlando and win that competition. From there, whatever the regular season looks like we have to adjust and adapt.
ASN: The league has been dominated in recent years by some of these big spending teams. Atlanta, LAFC, and to an extent Toronto and Seattle. Do you feel Philadelphia could be knocking on the door soon to get into that level?
CURTIN: I don't know that for a fact but what I do know is that when other teams or other players talk about us now, it's the highest the Union has ever been perceived in our league. That is a positive. The biggest complement you can get as a coach is when your peers - meaning players, GMs, other coaches - tell you that they really like watching your team play. Wins and losses are what we are judged by, but for me, that is the ultimate compliment. I give the players credit; the club is thought of the highest it has ever been. Now our job is to not let that dip, and push to beat the LAFC's or the Atlanta United's, or the other historically dominant teams in the league. And we can do that in a different way. We can do that with a strong belief in our youth academy, or with a strong belief in our core leaders like Alejandro Bedoya and these guys who are battle tested. It's a good thing for the league to have teams like the Union be in that eschelon of clubs. It's something that I am proud of as a coach.
ASN: Cory Burke is coming on strong in the Austrian Bundesliga and had a hat trick recently for St. Poelten. How important is his return for the Union in 2020?
CURTIN: It was an awesome game for him. I've kept in touch with him throughout this whole process. He's a goal-scorer. I don't care what league you put Cory Burke in, he'll find a way to adjust and adapt and score goals. It took a little time here with the pandemic, but you saw him break out. All three goals were Cory Burke goals - running hard in the box, making a play defensively to start an attack.
I love working with him and to get him back into a group with Andrew Wooten, Kacper Przyby?ko, and Sergio Santos - that's a scary group of forwards. Going into this season, whatever it looks like, you're going to need to rotate the squad and to have four guys like that which defenders don't want to play against is a real positive back....But to get him back there are still a lot of variables and hurdles to make that happen.
ASN: Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson, they were two young U.S. U-23 players who were starting to breakout. This was going to be a big season for them both internationally and with the Union. How tough has this whole shutdown been for them and what are your expectations for them in this makeshift season?
CURTIN: You always forget how young these kids are. The big part of things right now is the mental part of just life and the game. What they're going through is a lot. They just played their first cap for the national team, they were about to go to an Olympic competition, and if everything went right - compete in the Olympics and represent the United States. That has kind of been taken away from them. Imagine what is going through their minds mentally and there is still a lot unknown about how players react to different things.
Getting to know them and having relationships with both of them is what it comes down to. They're two very mentally strong kids. I don't want to paint a picture that they can't handle it. It must be a lot to go through. They're both so talented and the both played a great game against LAFC [before the shutdown] and we were about to release them for Olympic qualifiers. Now it is gone from them. But they're in great form right now. Seeing them in the small-team trainings, I have to tell them that no one is used to this right now but we have to find the positives.
Brendan and Mark are both kids with the ability to play in Europe. I've just mentioned to them that the last game they played was against LAFC, that game is out there for people to watch. During the shutdown, a lot of teams in Europe watched that game. Everybody wants it right away, but we are trying to preach a bit of patience in a unique time. But they are two players who I am incredibly high on who represent the Union incredibly well.
ASN: You've shown a lot of willingness to play younger players as a manager. With the possibility that the schedule is congested, do you think you will use more younger players in 2020? Aside from Brenden and Mark, does this open the door even more for Anthony Fontana, Matt Real, or even others?
CURTIN: I think that is going to be factor for every team. Strategy-wise, how do you use the extra substitutions? Do you go to younger players when you have a run of Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday games? Every time I've given a younger player an opportunity, they've proved me right. It does take courage but as coaches, there is no such thing as too young or too old. There is just good and bad. When you do see them do good things during the week in training - throw them out there. Most of the times, they will come through because they've been prepared and have worked so hard. Most have been with us through the youth academy, so they have more to prove and show that they don't want to let the club down which developed them and gave them the opportunity.